No poll fraud–Comelec

‘Minor change in code didn’t alter vote count’
MANUAL AUDIT Despite the bank of computers at their command center, volunteers for the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting manually audit election receipts three days after the May 9 elections. RICHARD A. REYES

MANUAL AUDIT Despite the bank of computers at their command center, volunteers for the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting manually audit election receipts three days after the May 9 elections. RICHARD A. REYES

The Commission on Elections (Comelec) on Thursday dismissed allegations of fraud in the May 9 elections, saying a change in the data packet for a transparency server was just “cosmetic” and did not affect the counting of votes.

“I can categorically say there is no cheating,” Comelec Chair Andres Bautista said at a press briefing on Thursday afternoon.


Bautista said the correction was cosmetic. “It does not in any way change the results, the counting and the canvassing of votes and the source code of the automated election system (AES).”

The Comelec made a clarification after the camp of vice presidential candidate Sen. Ferdinand Marcos Jr. cried fraud in the counting of votes that led to administration candidate Camarines Sur Rep. Leni Robredo grabbing the lead from Marcos.


The Marcos camp, through lawyer Francesca Huang, on Wednesday said a new script was introduced in the transparency server “from which the PPCRV (Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting) obtains its data for the quick count,” altering the hash codes of the packet data.

The son and namesake of the late dictator was leading the early count by as much as a million on Monday evening, but the widow of the late Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo eventually overtook him early Tuesday. As of Thursday afternoon, Robredo was still ahead of Marcos by more than 200,000 votes.


Lapse in protocol

The Comelec acknowledged a lapse in protocol as the political parties were informed about the adjustment only after Smartmatic project manager Marlon Garcia had changed the special character “?” that appeared in the names of certain candidates to “ñ.” Smartmatic is the technology provider for the elections.

Officials also said the Comelec  en banc was not notified before the change, except for the poll body’s IT officer Rouie Peñalba, who witnessed the adjustment.

Peñalba was stationed at Pope Pius Center in Manila, where the PPCRV was conducting the quick count using the transparency server.


Election Commissioner Christian Robert Lim said the outcome of the adjustment in the script of the data packet was a changed hash code.

But he said the hash code that changed was merely that of the data packet and was entirely different and separate from the hash code of the AES.

He explained that “?” appeared in the names of certain candidates since the transparency server system, which was written in the English language, could not process or understand the letter “ñ.”

“So what they did is they introduced a script that will understand what ‘ñ’ means in the transparency server,” he said.


Should have been overruled

But if he were informed before the minor change was implemented, he would have overruled it so as not to add fuel to rumors of cheating.

The Marcos camp said its allegation of fraud was based on information from an IT expert monitoring the PPCRV quick count. The senator’s camp, however, did not present evidence to back its claims.


Change uncovered

The IT expert, who asked to be interviewed on the condition of anonymity, told Inquirer.net that hash codes of packet data in the transparency server were changed.

“At 8 p.m., May 10, in the course of our regular verification of the files that we are extracting from the transparency server, we uncovered something that is not correct—the paired hash codes of the file is not the same,” the source said in an interview early Thursday morning.

The source, who works as a lead IT consultant in a private company, refused to divulge his identity, saying that they were covered by a nondisclosure agreement with the Comelec.

The PPCRV said it was leaving it to the Comelec to respond to allegations that a new script was introduced on the transparency server receiving the votes to change the hash code.

In a report submitted to the Comelec on May 12, Smartmatic project director Elie Moreno recounted how the introduction of the script was triggered at around 7 p.m. at the PPCRV Center.

Observer’s observation

An “observer,” whom Bautista identified as Robert Locke, an IT technical staff of an online news network, called the attention of Peñalba to the presence of several question marks in some of the candidates’ names where the letter “ñ” should have appeared.

The Comelec IT officer then notified the Smartmatic technical support team led by Garcia about the concern.

“Upon being notified by the Comelec and after validating that changing ‘?’ characters required a minor cosmetic change to appease the observers at the PPCRV transparency center, the Smartmatic technical support team addressed the concern by introducing the correction of the script in the presence of everyone present there,” Moreno wrote.

Following the adjustment, the Comelec IT officer and the Smartmatic technical support team announced to all those present at the PPCRV transparency center that the correction was made and all subsequent data packages would reflect the candidates’ names with “ñ” instead of “?,” he said.


Moreno further said in his report that the change was done openly in the presence of the political parties and was witnessed by the Comelec IT officer.

“Furthermore, such action was done in full view of several people in the PPCRV transparency center with full knowledge that a CCTV system is in place,” Moreno said.

In a separate report to the Comelec en banc, Peñalba said  William Yu of the PPCRV validated the data package by reverting  the “?” and then rehashed it, confirming that the hash was the same. “This means that only the [special character] in the names of the candidates was changed,” Peñalba said.

Compare results

Bautista said to quash suspicions of fraud, all results could be compared with the printed election returns of the vote-counting machines (VCMs), the electronic results transmitted from all the VCMs, the results in the Comelec’s central server, the PPCRV’s transparency server and the results shown on the Comelec’s website.

The Comelec also announced on Thursday that it would make available “hopefully today” the original script and the amended script with their respective hash codes for publication and scrutiny of anyone.  With reports from Leila B. Salaverria and Marlon Ramos

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